The Swedish school jungle

By on 26.11.2015 in Guest lectures

When Professor Lisbeth Lundahl gave an open lecture at the University of Helsinki, she emphasized the high costs free school choice has led to in Sweden.

In her lecture “Global neoliberal education policies and their adoption in Sweden” she opened up what is happening when competition becomes a key issue in Swedish schools. She illuminated the consequences of privatization of education in Sweden, where nine out of ten so called free-schools are run by private companies.

Professors Kristina Brunila and Lisbeth Lundahl are working together within JustEd.

Professor Kristina Brunila and Professor Lisbeth Lundahl are working together within JustEd.

Lisbeth Lundahl is professor at the Teacher Education Faculty at Umeå University, visiting professor at University of Turku and JustEd team leader.

The era of knowledge capitalism

“In the era of knowledge capitalism, education has closer ties to the economy at all levels, and it has a central function of producing employable and flexible manpower. Furthermore, education is redefined as a private rather than common good, and is a crucial capital for successful competition and economic growth,” Lisbeth says.

There are multitude of actors working together globally, going in the same direction when it comes to neoliberal education policies and their adaption.

“We see policymakers at international, national, and regional levels sharing the same views as OECD, EU, UNESCO, the World Bank/IMF – they all start to speak with the same voice. There are various connections and collaborations between private and semi-private foundations, highly influential advocates of privatization of education and other public services, international and national private enterprises, a plethora of think-tanks, interest and lobby organizations…,” Lisbeth enumerates.

She notes that the Swedish education policy is stressing performance, outcomes of education and the fostering of responsible, self-governance, problem solving and enterprising individuals on all educational levels, as is the case globally today. In Sweden, privatization has however also taken the form of so called free-schools with conditions that differ from most other countries.

“There are all kinds of school providers, but today there are mostly limited companies running free-schools with a possibility to make profits for their owners.”

The largest companies are venture capital companies, the very idea of which is to buy and run the business for a short time in order to sell it with a high profit.

The free-schools in Sweden are fully tax-funded and fees of any kinds are not allowed. There has been a liberal permission policy to start a free-school for a long time, and the permissions are applied to the Swedish Schools Inspectorate. Municipalities are asked to give comments about applications, but cannot stop them.

Revolution in the educational system

“What we see here is a revolution,” says Lisbeth. “The share of students in compulsory free schools has grown from a few percent at the millennium shift to 13 percent. At upper secondary level the proportion of free school students is approximately 25 percent – in the three big cities from 40 to more than 50 percent.”

“Sweden is the only OECD country with declining public school enrolment in 2003-2012 among 15 year olds. But it is equally important to note that public schools act on the same market, competing over students and funding by extensive marketing, which takes time and other resources from teaching.”

The free school choice in Sweden has led to high costs for the society.

“We see increased segregation and differences between schools. We know that there are huge sums of the tax-payers’ money going to profits instead of teaching and other educational support.”

Another serious consequence is that young people are left to navigate through a jungle of educational alternatives. Also Swedish students´ decreasing academic performance since the 1990s has been related to decentralization and marketization.

“We can also see indications of changed pedagogic identities among teachers students, as well as important changes of headmasters’, teachers’ and career counsellors’ work,” Lisbeth says.

Profit from tax-payers’ money

In Sweden the largest free school company, AcadeMedia, owns 450 pre-schools and schools in Sweden and Norway. The company has 12 000 employees, 90 000 students and an annual turnover of 679 millions (2013-2014) and a profit margin of 7,1 per cent.

“Today school matters are largely managed back-stage in Sweden, on an economic arena that few are famililar with and that is protected by business legislation. This is another serious cost of marketizing education, Lisbeth concludes,” Lisbeth concludes.

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About the Author

About the Author: Journalist currently working as Communications Specialist at the Nordic Centre of Excellence "Justice through Education in the Nordic countries" and in NordForsk's programme "Education for Tomorrow". .

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